International: 'Rape: a basic tool of militarism'


Women’s groups such as Women in Black have long led the way in challenging the mindsets and structures of patriarchal power and militarism, but men must recognise that they have the primary responsibility to make the changes, says Rebecca Johnson

Twenty years ago, the first “Zene u Crnom”demonstration in Belgrade was held on October 11, 1991 to protest against rape and ethnic cleansing. This was one of the first Women in Black demonstrations to be held outside Jerusalem, where Israeli and Palestinian women had started a weekly vigil in 1989. Since then, the Women in Black movement has spread around the world, from India to Colombia, London to Seattle. The core philosophy is feminist, anti-nationalist and anti-militarist. Women in Black use nonviolent means to take collective responsibility to oppose nationalism and violence, especially where ‘their’ political leaders and militaries are complicit in perpetrating, facilitating or justifying armed violence.

This October, women from all parts of the former Yugoslavia were invited to Belgrade for the twentieth anniversary, together with several women like me, who had supported Zene u Crnom and other feminist resistors at the time. There were tears and anger as well as songs and hugs. We listened to women from Srebrenica who spoke about losing sons and husbands in the horror of the July 1995 massacre. They talked about searching for the bodies of the massacred men. They didn’t talk about being raped. Yet a number of women in that room were rape survivors.

From Rwanda to Bosnia, the rapes that were inflicted on so many women during these wars are still a shameful horror that women are expected to carry alone. By comparison, murder is a shared grief, a dreadful war wound, but at least one that gets a sympathetic response, recognition and sometimes even a war crimes tribunal. Notwithstanding the inclusion of rape and other kinds of sexual violence in the Rome Statute that establishes the International Criminal Court and most national legal systems, the 2009 UN Security Council Resolution 1888 acknowledged that very few war rapists have been prosecuted.

The deeply personal sense of revulsion and shame, often compounded by fears of family rejection, that have persisted around rape in war, increase the political effectiveness of rape as a weapon in ethnic cleansing and war. I recall sitting in on some ‘women’s knitting groups’ in refugee camps in 1993-4. These knitting sessions each afternoon were ostensibly for making things that would be sold, but their importance went far beyond their income generating role. They were set up by trained rape counsellors because women didn’t come and talk in meetings advertised as counselling sessions. Recognising that the rape survivors saw themselves first and foremost as carers responsible for children (and often the elderly), a time and space was set aside for women to work with their hands and earn money while other volunteers looked after the children. I drove an aid truck with Women’s Aid to Former Yugoslavia, a voluntary group that raised money to train the counsellors. We brought in wool as well as clothes and medicines, and then paid the women for their beautiful lacy table cloths and woollen slippers and mitts. This gave the women a recognisable reason to come together, and of course they talked as their hands flew with the crochet hooks and knitting needles.

On one occasion amid the quiet industry and talk, I suddenly became aware of a different electricity in the room. Women were drawing closer to one particular women who had been talking softly and then began to cry. The counsellor murmured a gentle question, or perhaps gave a kind of permission…  I didn’t need an interpreter to realise that this was the context in which at least some of the Bosnian women could begin to talk about being raped. Outside the knitting room they seldom if ever spoke of such things, even to each other.

Zene u Crnom (WiB) collated testimonies of rape to expose this crime that is so often rendered invisible in the ‘chaos’ of war.  Their 2008 book “Women’s Side of War”, featured testimonies from women from many different backgrounds and ethnicity – Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Jewish and Albanian – underscoring the fact that rape was used by men and militias from all ‘sides’.  In one harrowing account, a teenager said, “I sometimes ask myself if it all had happened to me. To me – of all people…  to me (now), a man is a horrifying force of violence and pain.  I know that they are not at all like that image I have, but the fear I feel is stronger than a rational feeling.”  That raped teenager’s feelings would be recognisable to others in countries plagued by internal wars (what used to be called civil war).

On the African continent, women and young girls may be raped by one lot of militia coming through their villages and then they risk being raped again when the “liberators” arrive.  Nor can they be sure of protection in the refugee camps. As other kinds of testimonies and reports have exposed, women are also raped by international “peace” keepers and other men who assume positions of power, as well as by male refugees that continue to prey on the vulnerable in refugee camps, even as they are supposed to be protected and looked after by the United Nations and its international institutions.

Since the ground-breaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325, there have been several dealing more specifically with violence against women in conflict situations. UNSCR 1820 (2008), noted that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.  UNSCR 1888 (2009) called for an end to impunity for such crimes. UNSCR 1889 (2009) went beyond demanding prosecution for war rapists and training for peacekeepers, and reiterates that women need to be included at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for disarmament, the prevention, management and resolution of conflict, and the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security. Such resolutions are routinely ignored.

Rape is a common weapon of war, inextricably bound up with systems and attitudes about power, and the rights conferred by superior force. Rape serves as a powerful tool of occupation and conquest, and as an incentive and reward for military success. In war, rape frequently carries ethnic as well as misogynistic purpose, ramming home the humiliation of the vanquished, with amplified effect if the women have to give birth to ‘enemy’ children.  And sexual violence is not only a feature of armed conflicts, but has been used time and again to try to humiliate and silence strong articulate women, from Greenham peace campaigners in the 1980s to journalists and activists involved in the Arab uprisings.

Of course, men may also be victimised individually by sexual violence. Not only is this deliberately used by some men to reduce others to the powerless status of despised women, but male rape is also a tactic that is amplified by homophobic cultures of prejudice and fear. Nonetheless, rape is an overwhelmingly male crime perpetrated against women.  Even men who would never dream of committing rape continue to build and sustain the institutions and norms on which this version of power depends. Their complicity extends to the manufacture, trade and control of weapons used to coerce and rape, and the political and financial profits they gain from maintain economic reliance on military-related industrial infrastructures.

Tackling sexual violence needs more than the high-minded exhortations of UN resolutions. These are better than nothing, but they miss the point when they treat women as victims with inherent vulnerabilities. As demonstrated by Women in Black and many other feminist groups working against militarism and sexual violence, women have been leading the way regardless of opposition, threats and shoestring resources.  Men – individually and collectively – have to do much more now to recognise their own responsibilities, and to challenge and change the mindsets, structures and expectations of patriarchal power and militarism.

Rebecca Johnson is Director of the of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and a former senior advisor to the International WMD Blix Commission (2004-06)